A Little Language can go a Long Way

Mary Shiraef
9 min readJun 12, 2023

You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
— Maya Angelou

Having studied Albanian formally alongside my Ph.D. work for over a year, I often get asked whether I would suggest it. My answer is yes! Or at least, it depends on what you’re after. My primary goal in studying new languages is for enjoyment and exploration. In this piece, I discuss the pros and cons of part-time language study. If you’re working on a Ph.D. or some other full-time gig and are determined to enjoy your life too, this blog post might be helpful for you.

Studying a new language adds a certain richness to life few other activities can provide. Writing a dissertation on a specific topic is narrow by its nature, and studying a language alongside that has been an excellent addition to the plasticity I hope to keep alive in my brain.

Let’s start with recognizing the costs, however — because there certainly are costs, and the first one is probably why so few native English speakers take it on.

The first cost of choosing language study as an adult is time. In the part-time program offered through the American Councils’ Balkan Initiative, I typically spent six total contact hours per week with an instructor who practiced Albanian with me and guided me through the grammar. That is six hours of focused work I cannot spend on writing my dissertation, collecting data, or other tasks important to me that take attention and effort.

Time management is always a difficult task though, and there are ways to schedule language study that increase the productivity of other tasks — depending on your personal work mode and journey for balance among life’s many tasks. This takes some self-reflection and trial and error, but I don’t think it rules out language study specifically.

The upshot is that studying a new language can clear and re-settle the mind — an excellent antidote if your mind can race like mine. Having complex, conflicting, or negative thoughts in a new language is nearly impossible. And while language classes can take intense focus, the hour or so leading up to them is often your mind thinking in the language, filled with your mind practicing the words you already know. It’s almost peaceful, like experiencing a new part of your mind without a long memory. For this reason, I schedule my language classes as one of my first meetings every other day. And on my non-class days, I still like to do a little practice first thing. It’s like doing Wordle in the morning — a cognitive jumpstart to the day before the afternoon rush of emails comes in. Mental activities not related to my work improve my work experience and arguably save me time in the end.

The second cost is feeling dumb. Learning a language from scratch means living in the mindset of an elementary schooler. It’s challenging to express thoughts in your adult brain with the vocabulary of a 5th grader. And if there is one thing I agree with my 5th-grade self on, nothing is interesting about grammar rules.

An upshot to this one is that people who teach foreigners their language tend to be good and pleasant people. The two instructors I have worked with, Liridona and Vjollca, are exceptional. I imagine this is generally true: people who teach language aren’t after cash but rather those immaterial connections with people that culture and language sharing can provide. They push me to improve and learn more each day, and the learning process can be uncomfortable. But I think the nature of language study brings the ebbs, and the people you connect with as you flow through the process far outweigh the brief discomforts.

Liridona showing me the coastline of Albania from the comfort of my home on the left, and Vjollca helping me practice the “u” sound in Albanian on the right.

Learning a new language is the surest way to experience thaumazein or wonder, as the ancient Greeks put it—a dose of lived Socratic wisdom now and again never hurt anyone.

Despite feeling dumbstruck from time to time, studying a new language means you are learning something new consistently. This is great for Ph.D. Candidates, especially in the writing period, which can be so narrowed by the nature of becoming an expert on something. Studying a new language balances this out and helps your particularized work connect better with the outside world.

In my case, I now study the history and long-term impacts of communist policies in Albania. My project’s idea is partly possible because of the language divide between Albanian and Greek, which have substantial overlap from the period ruled by the Ottomans. However, unlike most languages that neighbor each other, they have distinctive linguistic roots. I use government archives and cemeteries for curating an original intergenerational database of ethnolinguistic identities transformed by Albania’s communist period (1945–90). Although language inspired my project in some ways and is deeply related to identity, I could, in theory, get by with my work by learning to read very little formal Albanian. After all, I write up my results in English, my database is mainly in English, and I rely on native Albanian speakers to translate text from archives and memorials I don’t have the cultural knowledge to understand as quickly as they can.

But my project was initially motivated by the thrill of learning something new, and I find that the task of learning Albanian reignites that. The tasks of data collection, analysis, and even writing up the results are more rote and methodical by definition. I have endless small examples of the subtly thrilling aspect of studying a language. The most recent example is when I came across the term Iso-Polyphonia in my textbook. My instructor explained that Iso-Polyphony is a folk style of a cappella singing, now protected as a UNESCO treasure. As it turned out, I had heard it before while in Albania but did not know what it was, why it moved me so, or where to find it again. I know it resonates similarly with others who come across the mysterious wonders of Albania because just recently, another author said the music “moved me instantly to tears.” The first time I heard it live, I walked toward it as if in a trance. Have a listen yourself →

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrZB-jNMoLc&ab_channel=manditaullaraj

Third, like anything, there are actual financial costs to studying a language — for the instructor’s time and the program’s administration—and no guarantee the time spent will generate income. There are also scholarships, however — many in the case of the Balkan Initiative. Universities also tend to offer some support for the cost of language study, especially if it is a language not offered as a course already. In my case, I received a nearly full scholarship and then applied to several internal grants at Notre Dame before finally getting the total cost of tuition covered. Those grant apps take time, too, of course. But they also produce written work and skills which can be used more broadly.

Moreover, with a less utilitarian frame of reference, the ability to communicate in a foreign country makes your time there infinitely richer. Each time I return to Albania, I feel better and better and BETTER about being there. This correlates with the extent to which I can understand strangers — in their terms rather than forcing them to speak a second language for my needs. It creates a sense of active belonging even in a foreign setting. Or, as Maya Angelou put it differently, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” Similarly, I think putting in the effort to learn a foreign language takes a lot of work and discomfort, and the personal reward is immaterial.

Fourth, a real downside is that negativity can creep in, especially when you miss the hour you planned for your homework or have an off day and forget how to say words you used to know. Since perfectionism correlates with getting PhDs, this is especially acute. I struggle with negativity and self-inflicted pressure and have found that acceptance is the only sure solution for this. I have to accept I will likely never be fluent from part-time language study — again and again.

I am also grateful when people, like my excellent in-country advisor, Linda Mëniku, kindly remind me that I’m still making progress and doing so much else! And she is right that I am progressing in the language, even when it doesn’t feel as fast as I’d like. Surrounding yourself with advisors who understand and accept your Ph.D. goals helps immensely. Perhaps most importantly, I secured a Ph.D. chair who values language study and supports it alongside my writing process. (Ph.D. supervisors vary on this.)

Although part-time language study is not an income generator, it is practically useful — perhaps more than you can realize before you get started. Of course, this one applies differently depending on your work. But in my case, I have found that studying Albanian opened doors and networks in Albania that otherwise would have been illegible to me. For instance, when I started my project, I was informed that Albania’s civil registry records before the communist period were probably no longer kept anywhere. If they were, they were hosted in the Ministry of Interior. I wrote several emails in English requesting access to no avail, but while studying Albanian, I wrote the letter request in both Albanian and English, sent it off, and.. voila! I got a response and invitation to view the records for my study. Not only did they still exist, but they were also already scanned and organized internally for much easier access than anticipated in a post-conflict country.

Learning to speak the language added credibility to my study, especially during fieldwork. A part of my project requires visiting cemeteries of remote villages where people still live. Most often, the people I meet are interested in my project, but they also can be suspicious. “Why do you come from America to visit our cemetery?” is often the look their faces reveal. Initially, I had a paper with the typed details of my study to hand to anyone who had an inquiry. But I found that speaking even a bit of Albanian about my project was much more effective (and efficient since local people are often the only people who know which road to take to the cemetery). Hearing Albanian, undoubtedly in a foreign accent, brings the brightest, toothiest smiles I have ever seen and more invitations for coffee and pakt (snacks) than I can feasibly accept.

This lovely couple in a remote village between Berat and Gjirokaster invited me in and fed me their delicious molasses and walnuts. I asked for a picture, and the wife suggested taking it “with their family photos,” a collage which you can see in the background on the right, including a shot with a slain lamb.

Finally, let’s be realistic and address the part-time element of language study. Studying a language part-time amidst a busy schedule means you can still enjoy the rest of your life without putting it on hold. That meant having the flexibility to travel around Albania, still take a “spring break” with my long-time friend from college, and be with my dog and partner regularly in our home. There is certainly a case for full-time immersive in-person study, which I’ve also done and deeply enjoy. But most cannot do this on the regular. Moreover, research has indicated that studying a language consistently over time is more effective than in intermittent long spurts. For this reason, if I have Ph.D. students of my own in the future or mentees of another sort, I will suggest part-time, regular study.

I try to practice language for one hour daily and save my longer time slots (4–5 hours) for tasks like writing. I hope this was helpful. Did I miss something? Do others have a perspective on this — or maybe some tips for me on balancing part-time language study with other life goals?

Feel free to comment below if so — and subscribe here if you want to receive an email whenever I publish a story.

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Mary Shiraef

Everyday Researcher, Occasional Teacher. I write here about the people, experiences, and businesses that bring me joy and occasionally, the politics that don't.